A screen of arches applied to the outside of a building seems to have become a thing in residential architecture, but it is not entirely new.
The idea of a punched screen of arches applied to a block has been a thing since the era of Italian fascism, when it reached its apogee with the enigmatic block of the Palazzo della Civiltà del Lavoro in Rome’s EUR district designed by Giovanni Guerrini, Ernesto Bruno La Padula and Mario Romano (1938-43).
The blank, flat (almost stage-set) arches approach was revived by another former fascist, Philip Johnson, in his rather fey but often annoyingly elegant mid-century oeuvre, in buildings such as his Beck House in Dallas, Texas (1964).
These arches represent a style that smells slightly of Italian artist Giorgio de Chirico’s eerily empty plazas — surreal urban landscapes never meant to be built — and has a whiff of laziness about it, applying a flat screen that dispenses with the need for a more urban or decorous elevation.
The arched flat screen can be made into arcades and balconies, and it can be enigmatic, dramatic and charismatic. It can also be arch-shape wrapping paper, the worst kind of applied architecture to attempt to turn an ordinary block into something with stick-on character. There is a reason “arch” also means “affected” or “tongue in cheek”. Irony in architecture is a minefield.
Here is a brief selection of how architects are using the motif to style, brand and articulate a new urban archetype.
Boulogne-Billancourt, Paris, by Antonini Darmon
Giving each floor of this social housing development a different promotion of arch, and staggering and angling some layers, constitutes a newish handling of the style. In this post-industrial suburb, it looks undeniably striking, with the arches creating terraces for the apartments. But it wraps and disguises a pretty basic building.
130 William, New York, by David Adjaye
Adjaye’s upmarket residential tower stands out a little as its arches are clad in brick rather than rendered white, and some of the arches have been turned upside down. Arches as brand identity. Is that enough?
Amstelloft apartments, Amsterdam, by WE Architecten
The arches here are set back and some are squeezed a little for extra invention. Set in a block of more determinedly modernist architecture, it attempts a certain dignified solidity. The interiors are not bad at all.
Vault House, Oxnard, California, by Johnston Marklee
Reinterpreting the form of a shotgun shack for a luxury beach house, the architects have applied arches as mid-century cheeseholes. This is not the neoclassical pretension of most similar schemes and is inventive, witty and better than most. One of the pioneers of the new “archery”.
Forum Museumsinsel, Berlin, by David Chipperfield Architects
On Berlin’s Museumsinsel (Museum Island) alongside Chipperfield’s deservedly acclaimed restoration of the Neues Museum and the strict arcades of the new James Simon Gallery is this mixed-used development incorporating an academy, offices and apartments. Arches are stripped down to brick bones but are still somehow monumental.
Conceptual urban masterplan, Doha, by Sou Fujimoto
For this mixed-use conceptual masterplan, Japanese architect Sou Fujimoto used nothing but arches. It is an enchanting image, but is it a representation of a real place? It takes us, perhaps, back to De Chirico — arches as dreamscape.
Photographs: Dreamstime; Sothebys International Realty; Pierre L’Excellent; Lightstone; Filip Dujardin; Eric Staudenmaier; Ute Zscharnt for David Chipperfield Architects; Sou Fujimoto Architects; SFA